Posted on

Making and Mending – and finding meaning along the way

At Nepenthe, we have long had The Free Box, a place where people have dropped off stuff they no longer need and picked up stuff that others are passing on (think books, kitchen ware, clothing, even furniture.)

In Great Britain, Repair Cafes are springing up – places where you can bring something to be fixed, and/or to learn how to fix it yourself, instead of adding one more item to the landfill or the floating island of trash we read so much about.

Repair Cafes – A better way

Big Sur has long held traditions of men and women coming together to make things. The colorful patchwork curtains that adorn the stage at our local Grange Hall where made in the early 70’s by a collective of locals. Barn-raisings were “a thing” in my childhood, and you’ll find mention of them in Henry Miller’s book “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch,” and Nancy Hopkins’ “These are my Flowers.”

Long before the road closure of 2017, when my particular Stitch and Bitch took off, the crew at Nepenthe gathered yarn and dumped out their stashes on tabletops in the restaurant, knitting “dump” sweaters on the round on long winter nights. These knitters were mostly men, knitting during breaks from flipping burgers, waiting tables, or mixing drinks.

When the Phoenix Shop at Nepenthe started carrying Rowan yarns some twenty-odd years ago, my mother Holly Fassett launched a weekly knitting class on the terrace at Nepenthe. It was $15 for a three hour lesson. Many accomplished knitters showed up just for the camaraderie.

Later, Holly moved her classes to her home, monthly instead of weekly, for free. Still ongoing, these gatherings move from one living room to the next, with potluck and often a group project, like our community baby blankets, in the mix. To this day, a basket of knitted squares is always being gathered together, and as soon as a baby is on its way, someone starts crocheting borders and piecing them together.

For me, it was the long (10 month) double road closure of 2017 that imbedded a love of the Stitch and Bitch in my heart. With no access north or south, we were essentially living on an island. Nepenthe can generate its own power and had months of food in the larder, so we weren’t going to starve. But what we really felt the need for was community, and the Stitch and Bitch gave us a way to come together around our creativity.

At first I saw the Stitch and Bitch as a social time in which we could pass on skills and inspire others to create. But as the weeks went by I noticed that many people brought simple mending to work on, projects like a button to sew onto a shirt sleeve, a project that had languished on a shelf somewhere for years.

I heard comments like “I never give myself time to do this when I’m home alone,” and “I love doing this with other people!” One woman brought her beading and created a line of Africa-inspired earrings. Others came with nothing and left with needles, yarn, and a project to work on with the know-how to do it.

During that long period of isolation, I took advantage of the solitude to paint many paintings, enjoying the beauty of the views from Nepenthe with only condors for company. But I found myself longing for something painting couldn’t give me. I found what I was looking for in the Stitch and Bitch.

There is something about working with textiles, yarn and needles or fabric and a thread, that soothes the soul. As my uncle Kaffe once said, “when I am knitting, I am home.”

This year, we are launching a four month series of Stitching gatherings at the Monterey Museum of Art. We will be creating a schedule of times in which to come together to make and to mend. Not a class or a workshop, but a place and a space to learn what you need to know, and pass on your own expertise at the same time.

Is it a political act to fix something instead of just buying a new replacement? Perhaps it is. Instead of adding to the landfill, we are making something that once was useful useful again. I believe, also, that a mended garment is more beautiful than a new one. Though I admire the adroit hand of a master mender, rendering the fix almost invisible, frankly I like seeing the visible stitches. I like knowing this garment has lived a little. Like Kintsugi, the Japanese tradition of mending broken pottery with a seam of gold. Or Sashiko, the tradition of visible mending born out of necessity and now an art form and a means of self-expression, not to mention global consciousness. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.

Sashiko – visible mending

In Meghan Racklin’s piece in VOX (see link above) Colleen Hill, a curator at the Museum at FIT says, “people are starting to dial back and think more about what makes clothing meaningful, and I would imagine that visible mending is part of that.” She goes in to say that visible mending “tells us that we can, in fact, have a connection to our clothing. And that that connection can continue. And rather than seeing something that is perhaps a little shabby or worn out, [and] seeing that as a negative thing or something that we need to replace, to in fact embrace it as something that we love and that expresses who we are.”

Best of all, it is not only the item we are repairing that is mended. It is something in ourselves. Today, taking the time to sit and stitch – fixing something broken or creating something new – is almost a radical act. Taking the time to pick up a dropped stitch, mend a moth hole, sew on a button – it feels like nourishment for the soul. It is reclaiming our time, it is the deliberate act of not rushing off to the next thing, or simply buying something to replace something that is not quite right, but rather ending cycle, retrieving possibility, repurposing. In honoring the object with our time, attention, and intention, we are also honoring ourselves and the value of our own equally vulnerable and transitory lives.

In preparing for my upcoming show at the Monterey Museum of Art (Kaffe Fassett and Erin Lee Gafill Color Duets) I am assembling many handcrafted items to display, part of the narrative of our family’s tradition as makers. I’m not just writing up an inventory, but actually picking up each hand-made sweater, scarf, shawl, and cushion and carefully running my hand over each item. I am holding them close, feeling their surfaces and textures, while looking for damage that time and use inevitably bring.

After a couple of YouTube videos to refresh my mending know-how, I have spent many pleasant afternoons repairing and making whole these treasured garments. In one instance I was struck by the many missing stitches in one needlepoint I made when my children were very young. I can feel the sense of myself at that time over twenty years ago in every fiber of the cushion. I can feel the sense of rushing in my younger self, and the urgency to create and complete something beautiful while juggling too many balls in the air at once.

Today my needlework is more methodical, finished, no gaping holes. I am proud of my mastery. But I am also touched by the sense of time and place and self that the older piece reveals. As I mend torn edges, I choose to allow many “flaws” to remain. They tell a story. They tell my story.

I hope you will join me for some of our community “Make and Mend” sessions coming up – and that you will share with me your own stories of making and mending.

Posted on

A Nepenthe Childhood

I was born in 1963, in Big Sur, California, and grew up at my family’s restaurant, Nepenthe.

I remember so many moments from childhood, like stills from a film.

Peeking through the curtains to see everyone dancing down below.

The cake table at Nepenthe’s monthly Sign party

Astrology parties with free birthday cake and champagne and dancing under the stars.

Beating tin can lids with a ball peen hammer until the tin shone that we pierced with a nail and strung with wire from the branches of the Christmas tree.

Before we could work at the restaurant with real jobs, there were always tasks we could do. Soaking the labels off wine bottles – my grandmother would display the bottles in the windows to add a little color. Hammering nails out of old reclaimed boards so the wood could be salvaged, and sometimes the nails too, for a new building project. Bringing in kindling for the fire, and making tight balls of newspaper for kindling.

Lolly Fassett, my grandmother, at Nepenthe

My first job at the restaurant was buttering the French rolls we used for the Ambrosiaburger. Melting cubes of butter in a pot over an open flame and dipping in a three inch brush to slather the butter over the soft white bread – perhaps my first experience with the physical pleasure of painting anything.

Everyone who worked at Nepenthe was creative. Even the school bus driver taught ceramics. Candle dipping and macrame, knitting and crocheting – invariably there was someone teaching yoga or ballet on the terrace, or making a Halloween costume in the sewing room, or designing and making garments for the Phoenix Shop. For years a bestseller was a floor length “Little Red Riding Hood” hooded cape of boiled red wool, that seemingly everyone who was anyone wore – a nod to the theatrical streak in many people that Big Sur, and Nepenthe, seemed to unleash.

Creative people of all stripes were attracted to Nepenthe. I remember Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor when they were there filming The Sandpiper – Richard gave me a kiss and I was so terrified Elizabeth came out of the restaurant to console me, returning me to my speechless mother who was watching from the bleachers, knitting in hand.

Even before it was a restaurant, the place itself captivated people. In the 40’s, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth bought the log house on the hill as a retreat from their Hollywood lives. Later, the infamous author Henry Miller, shut out of Paris because of the war and cut off from his funds, took up residence in the house, and after the restaurant opened returned often to drink with my grandfather, and to play Ping Pong.

My grandfather Bill Fassett used to talk about all the famous people he’d seen out the window of the cabin. While we were all trained to leave celebrities alone, my grandfather would rush down to greet our most luminous guests like long lost friends.

Bill was an avid reader and fascinated by new ideas about religion, psychology, and what he called “the man/woman problem.” He probably stole that from Freud. His side table was always overflowing with the newest books. One of my games was to read the back of the book jackets upon first arriving in his Carmel home, so that I would always be ready for his inevitable quizzing about the newest bestsellers and trending thoughts of the day.

At Nepenthe, people could come from anywhere and be themselves. They could live out their fantasies, dabble in poetry or acting or art, while making some money waiting tables or tending bar. Artists and writers who lived in Big Sur, down the coast, deep in the woods, or up on a remote ridge, congregated at the restaurant at the end of the day to relax, share stories, and drink. Electricity was sporadic then. No one had a tv, some used kerosene lamps for light, and many went down to the hot springs at Esalen just for washing clothes and bathing.

Another game was to simply sit in the waitress chairs that lined the path to the bathrooms then and watch the people go by. It was like watching a movie, or a modern play, in which no one knew they were on stage. To this day it’s hard for me to eat in a restaurant without being completely drawn into what is going on all around me.

Even as these glimpses of a world and culture beyond Big Sur were alluring and inspired me to imagine traveling some day, it seemed as though all the many and varied corners of the world did, in fact, come to Big Sur – even more than that, as though all roads did, to paraphrase the old quote, lead to Nepenthe.

To this day, I have only to take five minutes to sit on the bleachers on the terrace to experience this phenomenon again. In one morning I can hear German, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese – it’s wonderful, and heart warming.

Nepenthe inspired me – compelled me – to write. Ideas seemed to be teeming in the air, and to ignore them was sacrilege. Poetry, plays, short stories, novels – I poured myself into the page as soon as I could write.

Looking back on those early efforts, I see now that within the writing was a painter struggling to find a way out. It was only after my son Chi suggested I take an illustration course for the children’s books I was writing that I found myself, gradually, bit by bit, working my way into becoming a visual artist.

Between my writing years and become a full time painter, I experimented with textiles, making swatches for community quilts, knitting garments for my children, sewing quilts, eventually designing and making my own sweaters. Even when I was following a pattern I seemed incapable of NOT altering to more reflect my own taste and ideas. Though my mother and grandmother Lolly taught me to knit, it was my uncle Kaffe Fassett who introduced me to multi-color knitting, needlepoint, making hooked rugs from rags, and mosaics. I experimented with all of these things, and for over a decade offered classes in my community for children and their families to pass on the pleasure of these time honored crafts.

But eventually the call to paint was too strong to deny. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have found this focus earlier. But I believe all of these things – all of these disparate discursive creative elements of my life before painting – have made me a better painter.

Posted on

Kaffe Fassett and Erin Gafill Color Duets 2020

Monterey Museum of Art May 14-August 23, 2020


When I was a child I remember my uncle Kaffe returning from his travels, hanging a bedsheet from the rafters of Nepenthe and projecting slides of his knitwear to the collective gasps of the audience – dinner guests, employees, and family members all.

In my twenties, I stole two weeks away from work and motherhood to shadow Kaffe in his London studio, knitting, embroidering, writing, and painting little watercolors in my travel journal.

In 1993, I made my way back to England to see the Northern Ballet perform in Bath with Kaffe’s folkloric costumes and Odilon Redon inspired backdrop. I couldn’t help thinking about my grandmother Lolly (Kaffe’s mother) and how much she would have loved to have seen this.

A few years later I wrangled an invitation to the Chelsea Flower Show in London to assist in Kaffe’s madly creative garden design for Hilliers Garden Center. He set me to work mosaicking a wall between the black and white worlds he was creating. On one side he created a deep palette of jeweled tones, using black coal as a lattice work between the flowers, while on the other side he concocted a diaphanous shell grotto in the palest of hues. Again, it was an immersion in creativity, inspiration, industry, and self-expression. This time, his audience was the world at large, with none other than Martha Stewart stopping by to compliment his work. Hillier’s took the gold medal that year.

In 2000, I traveled with my family to Stratford-on-Avon to see the curtain go up on Kaffe’s sets and costumes in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “As You Like It.” By the time it made its London debut, Kaffe’s dreamy sets had been stripped down to a white box, but we got to see the show in all its glory – the Forest of Arden interpreted in needlepoint, knitting, patchwork, and Elizabethan whimsy. As an artist, it was instructive to me to see the show as Kaffe had designed it before the critics had their way. It was glorious.

The morning after the preview, I watched him repaint the huge candy colored clouds to amp up the drama in order to make the clouds read better from the cheap seats. Watching him hard at work in this collaborative setting was thrilling and instructive, and I felt immensely proud of him. We were a long way from my grandmother’s living room in Big Sur.

And yet the seeds surely had been planted there in that very living room. Lolly – my grandmother, Kaffe’s mother – had introduced both of us to the “old” world through her own deep-seated love of the beautiful and the antique, her appreciation of textiles, and her own family stories that verged on the Shakespearean.

Born in 1911, Lolly was reared in a blue-blood San Francisco family with roots in the California Gold Rush, the San Francisco art scene, and the artist colony Carmel-by-the-Sea. When the Stock Market Crash and Great Depression knocked the legs out from under the family’s finances, Lolly was sent off to Europe to live with her grandmother, Jane Gallatin Powers. Jane, a socialite, heiress, and award-winning painter was dubbed the “artist-grandmother” by French critics and gave Lolly quite the spin through Europe. Their travels infused Italian and French culture into the sunny California girl along with an appreciation for the decorative arts and a taste for “la dolce vita.”

Lolly returned to San Francisco in 1935, and married the boy next door, Bill Fassett. With their five children assisting, from ditch-digging to making adobe bricks, they built Nepenthe, a restaurant designed by Lolly, Bill, and Rowan Maiden, an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Weight. An instant success, the “hamburger joint” as my grandfather liked to call it became the must-see place for tourists, and the local’s go-to for a drink after a long day’s work.

In Big Sur, it’s Nepenthe

Bill Fassett

Nepenthe – and it’s extraordinary, eclectic, and creative milieu – influenced both Kaffe and my deeply, as it was his home during most of his teens, and where I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s.

And of course Big Sur itself, with it’s vast open spaces, dramatic coastline, and wild winter storms, and its penetrating beauty.

These are a few of the influences that we have both felt, and that one will find in our work. The objects, the textiles, yes, but also the value that we learned from a young age of the importance of creativity and the pursuit of beauty.

In our upcoming 2020 exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art, the paintings we do together will live within the context of all of this and more. The story we are telling is one of process as much as product.

Posted on

Studies and Glimpses

House of the Seven Arts, Carmel-by-the-Sea
C) 2019 Tom Birmingham

We’re coming back!

Join us at Carmo on Julia Street for Tom’s “I Can’t Draw and You Can Too!” class December 28 1-4pm.

The class is $60 and includes all materials.

My slideshow “Awaken The Artist Within” follows at 4:30-5:30. Also at Carmo, it’s free and will send your home dreaming in full color!

Meantime our shows at Ariodante are still running.

Tom started painting while we waited for our students to arrive on one of our Italy trips a few years ago.

And he hasn’t ever stopped!

Join us at Ariodante Gallery in New Orleans for a show of Tom’s pieces, celebrations of all the places we’ve traveled with the people we love.

Tom’s work was discovered by Laurie Reed, my New Orleans gallerist. She had seen his early pieces popping up on Facebook and in a recent visit to Big Sur was treated to a private viewing.

This month he is the featured artist in the Lagniappe Room at Ariodante.

“I can’t draw and you can too!”

Tom Birmingham

The preview is Friday December 6, 5pm-7pm.

The official art reception is Saturday December 7, 6pm-9pm.

Monday December 9 1pm-4pm Tom is teaching “I Can’t Draw and So Can You!” for anyone who has ever wanted to draw or sketch but felt like they weren’t good enough. The class meets up at Ariodante, is $60, and includes all materials.

Tom’s Show

Ariodante Gallery

553 Julia Street

New Orleans

Posted on

Techniques – Color Duet with Kaffe FASSETT

How do we paint together?

Kaffe lives in London, I live in Big Sur.

He works in acrylic, I work in oil.

He is a textile designer, I am a fine art painter.

We come together around color, and we find all the color we could want in the still life.

In my mother’s house in Big Sur, we pull out boxes of objects saved over the years.

Polka dot ice cream bowls, sherbet hued vases, plastic fruit, stacks of patterned remnants handed down from my grandmother, or picked up at flea markets in our travels.

We start in the morning, a cup of strong coffee in hand.

We work small, usually on 11″x14″ stretched canvas to get started.

Kaffe sets up an array of objects and tucks his easel (borrowed from my mom) up close. At first, we paint side by side. This is because – in the first few days – I want to see how he thinks, and watch how he paints.

I usually paint my canvas with a warm undertone first, knocking out all the white.

Kaffe, in the other hand, works directly on the white, in a technique more similar to watercolor, with thin layers of color, and rarely any texture.

He mixes his colors with a small brush on a plastic yogurt lid. Often in a thinned pale yellow, he establishes his composition by starting with a outline of the objects. If he needs to adjust his drawing, he changes the outlining color to avoid confusion.

He continues to paint with a small rounded brush, starting light in value and going deeper and darker.

My approach is the opposite – dark to light – as I was taught so many years ago. He is always trying to push me lighter and into greater luminosity.

Typically, we finish a painting in two hours, and go on to try again right away.

Initially we start with a big jumble of objects, carefully arranged. As the days go in, each of us intuitively moves away from that, sometimes ditching the patterned backdrop for the simplicity of the cool gray card table – or choosing just one or two lemons and placing them against an extravagantly patterned tapestry in similar tones.

Whether working in neutrals or in rich and complicated jewel tones – or in a symphony of pastels – or the juxtaposition of chroma against neutral – it is the moment when the colors begin to sing to one another that we both look for.

The paintings go up on the mantel. We make another cup of coffee and observe them from a distance, noting how they read.

If he has signed his, then there’s nothing to be said. It is done.

If not, we chat about what might like a little tweak.

As the afternoon draws on, Kaffe heads off for a nap and I go home to pick up the threads of my own life – ready to return the next morning and try again.

Too soon, the week is done.

My own work is altered afterward, for quite awhile. I am more attuned to the nuances of color, differences in color temperature, and the possibilities of pattern. Eventually, my own predilection for shadows and strong form reassert itself – I am back to painting “me” again, but somehow different.

Posted on

Stealing Time

Before I was a painter, I was a writer, and the mother of two, a dedicated volunteer, and a community activist.

When I picked up the brushes for the first time, I had to steal one day a week out of my already hectic schedule. I’d put my kids on the school bus and head off to class in my old brown Volvo station wagon crammed to the gills with easel, paints and canvases.

I think I knew from my first small black and white study that painting had me hooked. It was almost impossible to make time for it, yet there was something so right in it I knew I had to find a way to continue.

Now my children are grown, and my life as a painter and teacher and writer has grown too. My painting career is wonderfully complicated, demanding, and rewarding, as hectic as ever but rooted in doing what I love, and loving what I do.

A highlight of my year is the one week a year that Kaffe and I come together paint still life’s.

He has just flown in from London and yet I am the one who is always late. There he is, at my mother’s table, already well begun, and may be onto a second painting already.

What has detained me this time? A class I am preparing for, a chapter for a book I am writing, an urgent phone call with a family member, or just getting a loaf of bread out of the oven at the right time.

In my painting career, I am on the road now traveling to teach and show up to six months a year, flying to Italy or Japan or Mexico to teach sketch or collage or painting classes, or across the country to Abilene, Texas or New Orleans, Louisiana, or Chattanooga, Tennessee.

It seems like I’m always preparing to go or just coming home.

And yet this one week a year, come what may, Kaffe and I paint together.

This stolen week feels impossible to arrange – for me and for him, I know – yet as the years go by has taken top priority.

Why is that?

One day it occurred to me that Kaffe was my first teacher, not only in painting but in living a creative life.

This week together is like drinking deeply from a well of crystal clear water straight from the source.

By the time I arrive, Kaffe has already arranged the objects we like to paint. I make a cup of coffee and find an angle at his elbow to set up my own easel.

We sit and look and talk and don’t talk. We listen to the radio – podcasts on philosophy or world events or meditation or great books – and take breaks to look at how the work is going.

It is glorious, and nourishing, and deeply inspiring. When Kaffe packs up his bags to head back into his extraordinary life, I am recharged with new energy for my own.